Maine Legislates a la Carte Programming

The Maine legislature passed a law that would create a la carte cable TV programming in the state. Titled “An Act to Expand Options for Consumers of Cable Television in Purchasing Individual Channels and Programs”, the act would require cable companies to offer individual channels to consumers starting September 19.

Comcast, and many of the primary programmers like A&E, C-Span, CBS, Discovery, Disney, Fox, Viacom, and New England Sports Network recently went to court to try to stop implementation of the law.

Consumers have been asking for a la carte programming for decades. People don’t like the idea of having to pay for channels they don’t watch. The cost of a cable subscription is the number one issue mentioned by the majority of the several million cord cutters that are now dropping cable every year.

It’s hard to think that the law can stand up to a legal challenge. There is a question of jurisdiction since Congress has enacted numerous laws governing cable TV that are still on the books and still enforced by the FCC. Those laws require cable companies to offer several tiers of programming for cable companies that have enough capacity to carry a lot of channels. The courts will have to decide if the Maine legislature can override federal law.

Probably more salient are the contracts between programmers and cable companies. Those contracts are extremely specific about how the cable companies must carry their content. Any cable company that tries to enforce the law will be in direct conflict with those contracts. Laws often preempt contracts, but I find it likely that the programmers would yank programming from Maine cable companies rather than see a la carte programming go into effect. If this law is allowed to stand in Maine it would likely quickly appear in other states as well.

The next problem is technical. Cable companies would find it difficult to deliver only those channels a customer wants. Cable TV networks act like a big radio system and every channel on a cable system is broadcast to every home on the network. A cable company uses filters to block channels that a customer doesn’t subscribe to. This is fairly easily done today because channels are delivered in large blocks. If a customer doesn’t want to pay for a digital programming tier the cable company blocks that whole tier. From my understanding, the blocking software used today doesn’t provide the ability to establish a custom blocking screen for each customer. This could probably be made to work with some assistance from the manufacturers of headend and from Cable Labs, but nobody has ever created the software to allow for custom blocking down to the individual channel level – it’s never been needed.

Individual channels are more easily delivered by companies that deliver cable TV on an all-digital network like fiber or DSL. This technology for delivering cable TV on these technologies is IPTV, and with this technology the cable provider only broadcasts one channel at a time for whatever customers want to watch. But even IPTV providers would need to buy modified software to give each customer a custom choice of channels.

It’s worth noting that idea has been tried in a controlled way. Last year Charter offered what they call Spectrum TV Choice where customers can pick ten channels out of a list of 65 choices and bundle them with local channels. This package is priced at $25. Charter is able to provide this product because they step outside of their normal network topology and deliver the channels over the customer broadband connection using a Roku box at the customer end. Charter has not reported on the success of this package and I’ve not seen it advertised for a while.

The final issue to consider is the price. Even if a cable company unbundles channels, they would likely charge a lot per channel. Are consumers going to be better off if they buy a dozen unbundled channels priced at $5 each for $60 or get a 150-channel bundle of channels for that same price? I believe that the cable companies would make buying single channels a costly endeavor.

It’s easy to understand why Maine legislators crafted this law. Cable programming has been increasing in price for years and is growing out of the range of affordability for many homes. Many homes don’t have sufficient broadband to cut the cord and feel trapped by the expensive cable options available to them. Surveys have also shown that the average home watched a dozen or fewer channels. My bet is that the legislation won’t survive a legal challenge, but I guess that’s why they have lawsuits.

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